Young Dren (Abigail Chu) is adorable, with her little bald head and bright blue eyes. She scampers around in a pretty blue dress, cradles a stuffed animal, and learns to associate things with words through a set of blocks with letters on them. She smiles when happy and looks quizzical when confused. In other words, she behaves like any other 5 or 6 year old, except that she's only a few weeks old. And was manufactured in a laboratory by a pair of genetics researchers, the couple Clive (Adrien Brody) and Elsa (Sarah Polley). And has bird-like legs. And a tail that houses a retractable barbed stinger.
Writer/director Vincenzo Natali's slow boil of a sci-fi thriller combines two genres that wouldn't appear to fit together that well: the monster movie and the family drama. And it achieves such a subtly seamless integration of the two through its rather banal realization. Clive and Elsa, the monster makers here, are a pair of corporate scientists working on developing genetically modified organisms that produce proteins for biomedical treatments. When they get pressured to get better results, Elsa wants to introduce a new genetic component to their hybrid lines--human DNA.
The eventually decide to try it out in the interest of science, but en route Natali assays their personal relationship. They live in an OK apartment with some cool things, but Elsa keeps looking for a new place that might be better for starting a family. She has a rather shadowy relationship with her dead mother, and Clive isn't sure if they're at the procreating part of their lives together yet.
They soon find they have to be when their human hybrid experiment produces a bipedal, sentient, and disturbingly human-looking creature, which Elsa names "Dren" (an anagram of the NERD biotechnology company they work for). Dren is aging rapidly, and becomes an adult (played by Delphine Chanéac) in a short while. Soon, Clive and Elsa have to hide Dren from their employers, and shuttle her off to the farm Elsa inherited from her mother.
Natali's 1997 debut Cube managed to fuse a gory horror thriller with an existential dread, and he works a similarly sly magic here. Dren never feels or looks like anything but an unnatural creation, but thanks to Chanéac's remarkable performance and the plot's patience, Splice makes you feel for her and her safety and well-being as much as Clive and Elsa's professional and scientific reputation. Of course, Dren might need to be feared as much as the outside world.
Splice ventures into some genuinely upsetting territory before it all plays out, and it goes there with a purpose. The modest shocks that come are as thematically unsavory as they are visually unseemly, in some ways making Splice as much a supremely dysfunctional family portrait as it is a scientific warning. Good, uncomfortable fun.